Category Archives: Qualified translators

What’s so disruptive about “disruptive”?

According to Google’s Ngram graph generator, the phrase “disruptive technology” appeared in print in the mid 1990s. Another phenomenon appeared at the same time: the bubble.

Douglas Rushkoff, author of Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus: How Growth Became the Enemy of Prosperity, recently wrote an article titled “Startups are not as disruptive as they appear,” adding:

“…the rapid growth of companies like AOL and Amazon —no matter the strength of their underlying businesses— whetted Wall Street’s appetite for exponential growth. And young founders took the bait, prioritizing inflated valuations over sustainable business models. The ideal shifted from building a company to getting it acquired.” (TIME magazine, March 21, 2016)

My readers might surmise that I’m about to indicate the correct Spanish translation for “disruptive”.  Alas, Fundéu has already done it:


I disagree, since we can use innovador, radical, revolucionario among other terms. As useful as Fundéu is for us translators and language users, I don’t just grab the first option. First, let’s see how the word is used in contemporary English. The American Heritage Dictionary (online version) defines disruptive thus:


In this short analysis of the adjective disruptive, specific lexicogrammatical coordinates are required. It is not enough to define a word but to see what other words can be used in its stead. Here’s a list of conventional synonyms from


We find more up-to-date information in the online MacMillan dictionary. The new usage for disruptive appears as “showing approval; original and new in a way that causes change.” But, doesn’t the English language have words for that already? Examples: innovative, radical, revolutionary.
macmillan-dictionary-disruptiveIt is clear that we can arrive at more intelligible options that are not buzzwords. Buzzwords can be part of an argot (casual vocabulary) or jargon (professional vocabulary). They aren’t just communicating a message (“this new memory chip is revolutionary!”) but also a philosophy. Let’s remember, however, that a company’s or manufacturer’s philosophy (so enshrined in their Mission and Vision statements) mask the reasons why the consumer should buy their products.

One of the features of a translation is communication, but it is hardly its only function. A translation can convey beauty (a poem), lifesaving information (hazardous material datasheet), instructions to achieve a task (repair of a water heater) and much more. To say that translators are communicators is as reductive and pedestrian as saying that a piano keyboard makes sounds.

A translator consulting Google for frequency of use of a certain neologism as his primary method of determining the right word in a translation is not doing his job. You, the end user, the project manager, the customer, the company owner, advertising manager or marketing copywriter, deserve better. After all, you also have access to a web browser and connection to the Internet. You could have arrived at the same conclusion by doing a search yourself. So, why are you paying that translator after all?

Being bilingually skilled to work with words is not enough. Pre-Internet, a rush search for an equivalent in a foreign language would involve consulting a dictionary. But a dictionary definition can only do so much. Reading actual usage of that word in the real world, in the here and now, requires a more empirical research method, and that necessitates reading relevant texts. For a translator, searching for the equivalent of our mot du jour, “disruptive,” should include not only reading the relevant English texts but also the French, Spanish or Chinese texts that are also relevant and specific.

A word about relevant texts: the translator will need to select the texts that show word usage with the least load of intentionality. Put it another way, a relevant text for our research purposes is any text that is not trying to sell you something (an idea or a product). With practice, a translator will learn to identify relevant texts and discard irrelevant ones. Now, back to being “disruptive.” As you may have surmised, the exposition of definitions, synonyms and arguments above is part of my own research of this word to better understand not just what meaning it carries but also how it (the word) interacts with other parts of speech, with other texts and with other meanings.

The previous paragraph may sound like a headache to the average person, but all those processes happen inside the head of a properly trained professional translator or terminologist. We are just seeing the product of those processes in this entry to illustrate how the complex may seem simple and quick, but only on the surface.

Any translator worth his salt will tell you that a proper translation will carry the original meanings over to the receiving language: your slogan will sound as peppy and impactful in French as it does in English; your technical descriptions will appear as clear and purposeful in the foreign language just like your technical writer or engineer made them in the original language. Your English advertisement will be as persuasive in Chinese. But let’s be careful: a translator is just the intermediary, the bridge between you and your end user. There is no need for the translator to adopt marketingspeak or advertising lingo. Yet that’s exactly what some translators, judging by what they write on blogs or industry publications, seem to have done with “disruptive.” They have become besotted with the promises behind that adjective, and that becomes a problem. Instead of being translators, they act like product evangelists (buzzword use totally intended). Like a faithful interpreter, a translator should act agnostic to the meaning or message he is carrying over for you to another language and culture.

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Filed under Buzzword, Diccionario Real Academia Española (DRAE), Fundéu BBVA, Neologism, Online dictionaries, Qualified translators, Research for translators, Research methods, Thesaurus, Word search

Mario Chávez, diplomate translator, at your service

I recently attended two conferences. One in Minneapolis, MN, on the design of medical devices, and a tradeshow in Cleveland, OH, for the 2016 Ceramics Expo. I enjoyed myself immensely on both and for a variety of reasons.

Having been absent from tradeshows or conferences since March 2015, I was a bit out of touch with that environment that I’d like to call outside: what kind of clothes to wear? Should I wear black or brown shoes? Shall I pack my netbook or just my iPad Mini 2? Should I design and order new business cards? And what about my elevator speech?

I grew up going to tradeshows when they were part of our school field trips in Córdoba, Argentina, so moving across a sea of strange faces and collecting free pens was a given. Because I had chosen the Design of Medical Devices event mostly as a learning experience and not a marketing opportunity, I went there with a ready and curious mind. Because I’m the kind of professional who isn’t giving elevator speeches at, well, elevators, and I prefer the laissez-faire approach, I did design new business cards with the focus on my medical translation expertise, with colors to match:

Wordsmeet Medical business card

I hedged my bets on a typewriter typeface to reflect many of the medical reports I transcribe and translate and settled on red tones resembling blood. I kept my contact information to a minimum to invite use and not contemplation. The reverse added to my call to action on the recipient:

Wordsmeet Medical business card2

Notice that I didn’t use the words freelance or translator anywhere on the card. My short introduction would go like this:

-Hello, I see that your company is designing cardiac stents (or valves or a measuring device). What can you tell me about it?

-Hello, I’m here attending the DMD to learn about 3D printing of organs. I see your company does something with 3D. Tell me about it.

When my interlocutor, after explaining what he does, turns to me and asked what I do, I would reply:

-I translate medical documentation, reports, medical devices… (handing him my business card to complete my own description). I’ve learned how laser sintering makes it possible to build these tracheas!

I would also use these conversations to delve into my other areas of expertise, as when a vendor and I were discussing the capabilities of a medical pump (used to regulate medicine drip on a patient in a hospital). I would ask what protections against hacking that pump device would have. The point was not to market myself but to start a conversation, contribute what I knew, ask about things I didn’t know, show sincere interest in what they did as a company. Most of these conversations would end pleasantly, sometimes without exchanging business cards.

Two weeks later, the Ceramics Expo was taking place at the I-X Expo Center close to the Cleveland Airport. I had a 3-day free pass to attend the tracks and visit the tradeshow floor. My only expense worth mentioning was the $10 day parking (and there is plenty of parking!) I have been to tradeshows on many occasions, as when visiting the New York City’s Jacob Javits Convention Center, but seldom have I seen such an organized expo as last week’s Ceramics Expo. Dozens of booths orderly set up, many German and Chinese companies being represented and brief yet useful presentations given (such as the one on transparent ceramics).

Showa Denko booth

Chinese company Showa Denko booth. Chinese reps were easy to spot for their dark business suits, white shirts and dark neckties, all very courteous to the visitor.

I remember debating on that Wednesday morning whether to bring 20, 40 or more business cards. I decided to bring to card carriers (those metal boxes with a capacity for 25-30 business cards) in my pocket. I almost regretted not carrying more cards with me because I had dozens of opportunities to speak with company representatives.

Of all the people I spoke to, only one or two were a bit surprised at my business card (see top of this post) because here I was, a medical translator in a non-medical tradeshow. I was able to explain away that discrepancy by introducing myself as:

-Hello, my name is Mario Chávez. I’m a technical communicator visiting this expo to learn more about the ceramics and glass industry.

And that’s all the spiel I needed to make. No need to use fancy schmancy words, or say that I’m an ATA-certified translator. I made a point of using active verbs to introduce myself: I translate this, I write that, I performed that other thing. If you want your prospect to take some current or future action, use action verbs, not nouns.

The whole exercise let me thinking: Should I use the title “Technical communicator” instead of “Spanish-English translator” from now on? Or Should I call myself something else, like a BA or MA in Translation Studies. I kept pondering on these alternatives and seemingly ambivalent thoughts for days. Then I stumbled on an article about how nurses with a BA are more in demand in American hospitals than nurses with an associate’s degree. The article, published in The Wall Street Journal last October 14, 2015, made a larger point: the use of the adjective baccalaureate, which means a 4-year or bachelor’s university degree.

Baccalaureate nurses are more in demand than those with associate's degrees.

Baccalaureate nurses are more in demand than those with associate’s degrees.

That adjective took me to another one: diplomate. According to the online Merriam-Webster dictionary:

Definition of diplomate

So, I’ve decided to posit the question: wouldn’t it be better for a translator holding a university degree to call herself a diplomate translator instead of a freelance one? First, a freelance anything is simply someone who is working on her own, as a sole proprietor (or entrepreneur, if you must use that detestable word). A freelance translator’s only highlight is her ability to work for a variety of clients, beholden to no employer. But there are so many bilingual workers who call themselves translators that this distinction becomes not just blurry but useless and noxious.

Second, the beauty of the diplomate adjective attached to our chosen profession is that it highlights one of our largest investments: a university degree and/or diploma and a professional who has been vetted by a board of professionals (such as the American Translators Association).

So there you have it. From now on, I’ll be calling myself a diplomate translator because freelance translator just doesn’t cut it for me anymore. How about you?







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Filed under Baccalaureate degree, Diploma, Diplomate translator, Marketing, Professional development, Public image of translators, Qualified translators, Reputation, Technical writing, Translator qualifications